Partner's Workshop: Stage Three; Lesson Nine

Understanding Your Emotions

When dealing with the often extreme emotions that result from such a traumatic crisis, there are two areas that you need to be acutely aware of: emotional intensity and emotional patterns. Your understanding of these two areas will allow you to recognize unhealthy emotions and take effective steps to reduce their harmful effects.

What are Emotions?

Emotions. Everyone knows what they are. They are the feelings you have. Happiness, loneliness, anger, pride, anxiety, aloofness, euphoria, regret, shame, guilt, excitement, love, love (it deserves to be mentioned twice) and many more. It is our emotions that guide our perceptions. And it is our perceptions that determine the very way we experience life. Two people can have the same exact life events occur, but the emotional responses that are elicited from each event will trigger completely different perceptions...and you can end up with two lives at very opposite ends of the satisfaction spectrum. So, it is a given that the role of emotions are important, but just how important may surprise you.

Close your eyes. Well, first read the remainder of this paragraph, and then close your eyes...once they are closed, take some time to think about the feelings that are going on inside of you. Think of how your thoughts influence those feelings. Pinch yourself on the arm (literally) and consider again the changes in how you feel — emotionally. Think of the best memory that you have. Then think of the worst. Think of all sorts of experiences that you have had in your life. Fantasize about experiences you would like to have. As you allow these thoughts to flow, keep your focus on the emotions that you are experiencing. What you are experiencing as you do this is you. The real you.

You are not the physical being that you see in the mirror, though that is how most people identify themselves. You are the sum of your inner self. It is what some people refer to as your soul. It is what other people connect with when they experience intimacy. It is what those who struggle with compulsive behavior most frequently take for granted. Your emotions are the primary natural motivator for every voluntary action you will make as a human being. The experience of pleasure, the avoidance of pain — two of the greatest motivators in life — are defined by the emotions they elicit.

When your partner begins to break down "what it takes to recover", they will come to the realization that it is only their emotions that they need to master. That their compulsive behavior isn't some big, bad monster that has taken over their life, but simply a combination of emotions that, once they learn how, can be easily isolated and eliminated. That folks, is recovery in a nutshell. It is changing the perceptions of the behaviors that trigger the emotions experienced. Oooh, brain cramp. It is understanding how emotions drive behavior, and learning the skills necessary to manage these emotions. It is learning the intricate ways that emotions and perception combine to create the best and the worst experiences of our lives. It is in knowing that when they feel like they can't control their behavior. It is not the same thing as them being unable to control their behavior. That it is merely their own emotions they are facing, not some unstoppable, unidentifiable force.

Now, science has linked emotions all the way down to the biochemical changes that take place within your brain. And in fact, some people's brains are defective. But the common acceptance that compulsive behavior should be considered a disease, based on its association with physiological processes, is misleading. It may be comforting to hook into such a hypothesis, but there is another possibility that is actually much more likely. Like the development of learning patterns (another process that has been linked to biochemical changes in the brain), the development of emotions actually causes the biochemical changes (rather than emotions being the end result of some biochemical "disease").

What does any of this matter to you? A lot. Your ability to manage your own emotions will be the single master key to unlocking your own healing process. It will allow you to accurately perceive what you are experiencing and will allow you to make decisions that are based on reality, rather than an emotionally-skewed reality. The ultimate goal in managing your emotions will be to develop the ability to use your values to generate healthy decisions and actions...something we will be doing throughout the remainder of the workshop.

Emotional Intensity

In the previous lesson, we discussed the similarities between you and your partner in terms of values — and the negative ways in which they have been affected. There is another area in the healing process that, by recognizing similar traits in yourself, will provide you with a better understanding of what your partner is experiencing/has experienced. That area deals with emotional intensity.

Earlier, you explored (should have explored, anyway...if you did not...go back and do so!) what it was like to isolate your thoughts, feelings and emotions from your physical self. To experience yourself not as a physical image, but as a soul. This experience will come in handy when dealing with your own emotional extremes.

One of the most comforting aspects of addiction recovery, is in knowing that when all is said and done, the only thing standing between your partner's compulsive actions and a healthy, value-oriented person are emotions. And with all but the rarest of exceptions, there is no brain tumor that is disrupting their impulse control, no chemical imbalance that is forcing them to act in sexually or romantically compulsive ways...it is simply their emotions. Or rather, their inability to manage their emotions. Nothing more. As your partner begins to realize this, the power of their addiction fades. The pressure they felt to alter their current emotional state was such that they would have done anything so as not to face the uncertain emotional consequences of what may lie ahead. They acted in a way that was consistent with how they have successfully (though temporarily) dealt with their emotional extremes previously. By not acting in such a way, they would have actually increased their stress by facing an unknown future. To put it simply, they just don't know how extreme the anxiety, the urge, the emotions may become...and they do not want to find out. Not when a simple, pleasurable act will reduce the stress that they are experiencing. Again, temporarily.

But it is this reality that makes addiction recovery so simple. And, available to anyone with the sincere desire to stop. Because the trigger to their destructive patterns only "feels" overwhelming...in reality, it is not. This need to act out, this "extreme urge"...it is a feeling, not a fate. And because it is a feeling, it can be isolated, defined, measured and resolved. All without having the need to act in a destructive manner. All that is required is the time to develop the skills that are involved in managing emotions. Not to oversimplify recovery, there is a whole lot more to learn than simply managing emotions, but this is the key to ending their compulsive behavior.

Now consider your own emotional extremes. Consider how you feel when you imagine your partner with someone else...when you catch him/her in yet another lie...when your child asks you why there are pictures of naked people on the computer...when you think of all of the wasted years with this person...the list can obviously go on and on. It will be important for you, just as it is for your partner in their own recovery, to recognize that what you are experiencing are only emotions. Extreme emotions, yes...but emotions just the same. They are not capable of forcing you to act in certain ways. They are not capable of causing you immediate physical harm (long-term physical harm, now that's another story). You are in no immediate danger as a result of experiencing your emotions. The only reason to fear your emotions, is because left unchecked, they can alter your perceptions of reality...and trigger your own irrational responses in an attempt to manage these emotions. Suicide, homicide, divorce, your own destructive behaviors (compulsive overeating and affairs being common)...these are some of the irrational responses to emotional extremes to be aware of. Responses that - while they may temporarily allow you to escape the emotional extremes - end up causing much more long-term destruction than the temporary relief that they may provide.

Sound familiar? It is the same dichotomy that your partner faces when making the decision to act in a sexually compulsive way. Over the course of the workshop, we will look at healthy ways to involve your values, priorities and goals in assessing your emotions.

Emotional Patterns — Chaos

The other area to be aware of in terms of emotions in recovery, is the common pattern that some couples (most often the partners of those in recovery) find themselves in: that of perpetuating emotional chaos within the relationship. This can most often be seen in situations where there has been an emotional void within the relationship (or lack of intimacy) prior to the discovery of the compulsive behavior. Such a discovery (or ongoing suspicion of such behavior), opened up a window of communication that, while it may be unhealthy, is never-the-less better than the emotional void that was previously experienced within the relationship.

When this pattern of emotionally extreme communication (e.g. yelling, confronting, accusing, challenging, controlling, obsessing, threatening, etc.) continues over several months or more...it becomes more of an expectation within the relationship, rather than a reaction to the initial crisis. So much so that, when such extreme emotions are not being experienced...the relationship (and the recovery/healing processes) feels as if it has stalled (again, usually by the partner). It is the emotional extremes that have become the standard way for partners to measure the progress of their relationships. When they are emotional, they are progressing. When they are calm, they are stalled. This pattern can also be seen in individuals over the course of their lives, and the "need for emotional chaos" pattern is used in much the same way as others use addiction. But for today's lesson, we will focus only on the pattern in relation to the discovery/suspicion of the compulsive behavior.

Why this pattern is unhealthy, other than the obvious...is several. One, a healthy relationship cannot be sustained under such unstable conditions. It can be controlled, manipulated, forced...but not sustained in a healthy way. Second, such chaotic instability will tend to undermine your partner's sincere recovery process, as they too are attempting to stabilize their lives and part of that stability comes from the relationships that they are involved in. Third, and most importantly, it will keep you from experiencing peace and serenity within your own life.

Exercise Twenty-Two

A. Find a place where you will be alone and safe. Ensure that, for the next fifteen minutes, you won't be interrupted for any reason. Not five minutes, not ten...not even fifteen interrupted minutes...fifteen uninterrupted minutes.

Then, close your eyes and just feel. Feel the things that are important to you. Feel your values. Feel your regrets. Feel the trauma you have experienced. Feel the wonderful moments in your life. Let yourself experience all of the emotions that come to you — though allow these emotions to encompass a wide range. Focus on each emotion and DO NOT OPEN YOUR EYES! (this is an important part of the exercise).

After you have done this for fifteen minutes or longer, open your eyes and answer the following:
1) Describe the most extreme emotion that you have ever experienced.
2) Describe the most irrational behavior you have ever engaged in as a result of your emotions.
3) If you could go back in time and offer yourself "perfect advice" that would have influenced this irrational behavior...what advice would you offer?

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